2002 Nice Triathlon
By Michael Lovato
ISSUE #18, October/November 2002 – The town of Nice on the southern coast of France has been hosting a triathlon for twenty-one years now. It has long been known as the oldest official triathlon in Europe, and was reportedly created by some folks that were awestruck by the inaugural Iron Man staged by a dozen or so crazies back in ’78. Although its fame, tradition and mystique have not quite reached the magnitude of the IM world championships, the International Triathlon of Nice maintains a certain lure that manages to draw one to two thousand participants (and many more spectators) year after year. This year the Nice Tri was once again selected to serve as the ITU Long Distance world championships. With said designation the organizers had little trouble attracting two thousand triathletes, all anxious to tackle the choppy 2.5-mile swim, the challenging and treacherous 75-mile bike, and the flat but windy 18.6-mile run.
Drawn by the challenge of a difficult race, a slot on Team USA, and the desire to visit the French Riviera in late September, I made the trek across the Pond to see what Nice had to offer. Although I had been warned by many to avoid participating in a race “so close to Hawaii”, I shirked off all warnings claiming that there was plenty of time to recover, and that travel was something that little affected me-I enjoy it, it’ll be no big deal. Without spoiling my story’s ending, I’ll say that at least I was half-right.
Following the advice of past-winner, Peter Sandvang, I arrived in Nice early enough to preview the bike course several times prior to race day. Among veteran triathlon racers it is a well-known fact that the bike course in Nice was created in true Tour de France style. It’s lengthy, switchback-laden climbs were precursors to their technically demanding, curve-crazy, screaming downhill counterparts. To ride well in Nice requires strength on the ascents and courage on the descents. To be at the front means to have the confidence in your abilities to handle the bike and the nerve to execute.
In the several days prior to the event, I continued training, all the while gaining familiarity with the technical course; attempting to “memorize” as many of the curves and loops as possible. Knowing which turns required a tap of the brakes, and which ones were soft enough to blast through without losing momentum. As the days progressed I became more and more excited. I was convinced that this was going to be one of the most fun bike segments of any triathlon I had done to date. As my excitement grew, likewise increased my confidence. I felt that with my abilities to ride uphill, and my newly found descending prowess, I would be unstoppable across the 120 kilometers. Had I only given a bit more attention to my preparation to those other two segments… the swim and the run were they?
On race day the extraordinarily long transition area was filled with hundreds of athletes, who seemed to be speaking in hundreds of different languages. I ambled toward my bike, listening to some folks discuss what we were to do with the large plastic tubs each of us had positioned by our bikes. Do our things go in or on the box? It seemed that the instructions were a bit jumbled in the translation from French. Darn prepositions!
As the full moon began to dim and the sun began to rise, most of the competitors made their way to the crystal-clear waters of the Mediterranean. Our start time was 7:15, and the time was drawing near. Once the horn went off, little of what happened for the next hour is worthy of mention. Suffice it to say that during that swim I sank to the very depths of my worst-swim nightmares. I surfaced (and awoke) to find that I had a sizeable deficit, both time-wise and placement-wise. I therefore tackled the bike with a bolstered enthusiasm. If I was to turn the race around, it was going to have to happen on the bike.
Starting the bike in fiftieth place has its advantages: passing, lots of passing. I began counting at the base of the first long climb, and once I reached the summit, I had overtaken nineteen racers-things were turning around. At the bottom of the first technical descent, only one chap had overcome me, and he was not able to drop me. It seemed that my preparations were paying off. Fueled by my strong dislike of drafting triathletes, I pressed ahead, eager to drop the hangers-on that managed to gain ground on the downhills. Returning again to the mountains, I succeeded in moving myself up another ten or eleven spots. Things were definitely getting better. Swim schmim, at that point it was all about the bike.
In the closing kilometers of the ride, I experienced something that I never thought I’d see in a major triathlon. As I approached an intersection, I raised my hands to inquire which direction we were meant to proceed. As a reaction to the official’s response to my request for assistance, I nearly fell off my bicycle. Rather than wave his green direction flag in the proper manner, he mocked me by returning my same gesture. As he raised his hands in like fashion, I stared unbelievingly into his face-thanks for your help.
Fortunately, I picked the right turn, and found my way back to transition. Leaving T2 I was encouraged to see that I was not terribly far back from some of the top racers. It seemed that my bike ride had brought me back into the race somewhat. I donned my American flag visor and hit the pavement. I had thirty long kilometers to fully turn my race around; I still had hope. Following my well-planned strategy, I eased into the run, hoping to set myself up for a strong finish. Much to my dismay, I discovered after fifteen k’s that I was not able to turn it on as my strategy had dictated. (It seemed I needed some better strategy.) I modified my race plan to one of maintenance. If I was not going to have the snap necessary to drop my pace, I better at least stay steady. After all, if I could keep this position, at least I’d finish respectably near the top, and perhaps I could be the first member of Team USA to cross the line.
Approximately nine and a half miles later, I neared the finish line. Rows and rows of spectators were there to greet the runners. Many were waving their countries’ flags and most were cheering for us by merely yelling out our nationalities. It’s incredibly inspiring to hear “go USA” and to know that they’re trying to encourage you to cross that line. As I closed in on the final stretch, I succumbed to the urge to high-five everyone I possibly could. Although I had met my goal of being the top American, by finishing in 33rd place, I had fallen well short of all of my expectations and overall hope for the race. However, regardless of my finishing position, it seemed that each of the hundreds of people lining the finish area was either unaware of or unconcerned with my placing-they were there to cheer. And cheer they did.
Preparing to leave France I reflected on my trip. As I packed my bike and later dragged it to the bus stop, I considered my adventure. As I mentioned earlier, I had been warned numerous times to be careful doing a race so close to Hawaii. The questions were posed: Would there be enough time to recover? Would the travel be too much? Confident in my ability to recover and sure of my travel habits, I paid little attention to those warnings. Also as I mentioned earlier, I found that I was only half-right. Without changing this story into one better suited for a travel magazine, and without further lengthening an already lengthy account, I must add a few details of my journey home…
I left my hotel in Nice at 2:00pm on Monday, September 23rd. I then proceeded to catch a bus that was thirty minutes late (due to bad weather). This delay was the first in a chain of events that included (but was not limited to) the following: two missed flights, a cancelled flight, being caught “sneaking” into business class, a missed connection, two nights in hotels, a lost suitcase (airline’s fault), and a lost bike case (also airline’s fault). These events were solely responsible for my return trip (from door to door) lasting an amazing fifty-three (53) hours. And those fifty-three hours were solely responsible for my admission that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to travel. But all in all, it really was a Nice trip.